Since the beginning of Israel’s military operations in Gaza a great deal of ink has been spilled, and digits used up, going back and forth over the how of what Israel is doing. While it is true that the easily offended and quick to take umbrage professional defenders of all things Israel quickly got their full hissy fit going regarding questions as to what exactly it is that Israel is trying to accomplish, many much more thoughtful and deliberative individuals from left (Glenn Greenwald, Juan Cole) to right (Daniel Larison) have been more properly focusing on the how of Israel’s response to Hamas’ rocket attacks; especially if it is ethically and legally acceptable as to its proportionality. These authors, and many others online, in print, on the radio, and on TV, have all in some way raised the question or concern of proportionality. This was especially seen early on in posts and articles in Haaretz.
COL Lang offered me a chance to weigh in on this important question and issue regarding the use of war and political violence in general and the Israeli operations in Gaza in specific. As someone who’s work and focus is on the socio-cultural or human terrain, the answer as to the how of what Israel is doing, and whether or not it is proportional, lies itself within the Judaic tradition.
When both students and ethicists of War, as well as suitably informed commentators discuss the when and how of war it is usually within the ethical construct of Just War Theory. This tradition, dating well back into the Roman Empire (Cicero wrote and spoke on the topic), comes down to us in the US today through Christianity, specifically the Catholic tradition originating in the writings of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Bernard of Clarivoux. Just War Theory is broken down into three component parts: bellum justum – the overarching criteria for a just war that apply to the other two sets of criteria, jus ad bello – which define if and when a just war state can engage in a conflict, and jus in bello – which provides the ethical guidelines for engaging in a just war. In fact much debate still goes on today over whether activities during WW II, or other recent conflicts, are completely covered within the Just War Tradition. Usually these revolve around the question of proportionality. For instance, the Dresden fire bombings, as well as the use of nuclear weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki still lead to vigorous, and I would argue healthy discussion surrounding the various components of Just War. It is important to remember that just because a state falls within the Just War tradition, or any of the other religio-political traditions for engaging in warfare, there is no guarantee that those state’s leaders, populace, or military will actually follow the rules.
Judaism, like every other major religious tradition has its own ethical norms for War. There is one major difference between the Judaic guidelines and the Just War tradition: there is no real developed ethics regarding proportionality. This is important to take note of for two reasons: 1) it is the question of proportionality that goes to the heart of the argument over Israel’s actions in Gaza. This is not a discussion of justification or equivalence, but rather one of “given that Israel has a responsibility to defend itself and citizens, as well as to treat fairly with the Palestinians as their occupier, is the manner of Israel’s response ethically acceptable?” and 2) what does this lack of a Judaic concept of proportionality mean?
The lack of an ethic of proportionality clearly arises from the historical reality of Judaism and Israel. The three Just War equivalents for Judaism are derived from the scriptures and indicate what type of conflict is permissible under which circumstances. There are three that are delineated: obligatory, optional, and commanded. Obligatory wars, basically those fought during the Israelite conquest of Canaan during the early biblical period are largely recognized as being something that can no longer be engaged. Moreover, they had some of the harshest practices, including the use of the herem or ban – the utter and complete destruction of the enemy. The concept of optional wars essentially covers those conflicts engaged in during the existence of the unified kingdom under David and Solomon, as well as those that took place under the divided kingdoms of Judaea and Israel. The final category, commanded, is the one that covers the conflicts of modern day Israel. In this case war is considered to be legally (ie halakhically) valid to protect the state, the population, allies, and/or those who can not defend themselves. Moreover, it may also be preemptive to prevent harm from being inflicted on any and/or all of the above.
The missing component to all of this, and what is found in the Just War Tradition, is the one governing the conduct of the combatants. While Judaism does preclude the use of excessive force and makes it an obligation to avoid noncombatant casualties, to treat captives with dignity, and not unduly destroy fruit bearing crops, the rules regarding proportionality are both dated in antiquity and essentially nonexistent. The reason for this seems to be, the historic reality that from 135 CE the Jews never controlled a state. As a result all subsequent discussions of War and its conduct, even by such intellectual and ethical heavy weights as Maimonides, were all academic activities. This is in direct contrast to the development of the Just War Tradition. Cicero, the Roman formulator, was trying to reconcile Platonic and Aristotelian concepts with the reality of Roman governance. Augustine, Aquinas, and Clairvoux were trying to do the same thing as Catholicism spread throughout Europe and either directly or indirectly ran both the spiritual and the political. Jews, never being in a position to run anything for two thousand years, never had to develop a concept of proportionality in War because there was never any chance of them organizing or carrying one out. And while many Jews, both in and out of Israel, have discussed this issues since the Jewish State’s formation, the religion itself, as well as the socio-political culture of Israel has not completely caught up to the military and security reality.
Adam L Silverman, PhD; Social Science Advisor, US Army’s Human Terrain System
The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Army’s Human Terrain System, the Training and Doctrine Command, and/or the US Army.
For a much fuller treatment of both Just War Theory, as well as the Muslim equivalents of jihad and shahadat, please see my “Just War, Jihad, and Terrorism: A Comparison of Western and Islamic Norms for the Use of Political Violence.” In the Winter 2002 edition of The Journal of Church and State.